New centre focusing on life impacts

There is not much knowledge about the effects of environmental and social impacts on health, quality of life and causes of death. A newly established research centre is now working to find out, by applying big data and an interdisciplinary approach to the area.

2018.12.04 | Rasmus Rørbæk

Photo: Colourbox

Every year, around 40 million people die globally as a result of, for example, heart disease, cancer or diabetes. According to the WHO, this corresponds to 70% of global mortality. But we understand very little about the factors involved in non-communicable diseases such as cancer, allergies and cardiovascular diseases.

What is the interaction between our way of life, what we do, and the environment on the one hand, and our health and quality of life on the other? Can we change our behaviour, reduce the incidence of these diseases and improve our quality of life? A Danish research centre will now try to answer these big questions by combining health and technology sciences.

The Big Data Centre for Environment and Health, abbreviated to BERTHA, is a new research centre, set up with a grant of DKK 60 mill. from the Novo Nordisk Foundation. The centre will combine disciplines and, taking its outset in large amounts of environmental and health data, it will compare information on health, the environment, lifestyle and behaviour on social media. This will identify correlations between non-communicable diseases, and environmental and social impacts through life.

"Non-communicable diseases are probably one of the world's biggest health and development challenges. They are a complex issue and they are pivotal to the UN Sustainable Development Goal to reduce premature mortality by one-third by 2030. A wide range of factors could play a role in the overall number of impacts that accumulate throughout life, and in order to get closer to the answers, it is therefore important to look far beyond normal disciplinary boundaries.

Having the BERTHA research centre here at Aarhus University means that we can take advantage of the leading competencies and innovative approaches to research that are part of the centre's DNA. The centre will include three out of four faculties at the University. This really is cross-disciplinary research work," says Dean Niels Christian Nielsen, Science and Technology."

Rich data
BERTHA will shed light on subjects’ health on the basis of where they live and work using central health, demographic, and property registers. This information will be supplemented by, for example, traffic on social media that can shows researchers how participants interact in the environment. The unique aspect about BERTHA in a research context is that it is possible to collect data from personal sensors and social media. This provides potentials to help understand the complex interactions between environmental pollutants and public health.

"Technological development means that we’re living in a unique time, because we now have the technology to analyse the data we’ve been collecting for years. Much of this information has been available for researchers here in Denmark for many years, but no one has yet tried to connect the many data groups to look for the big picture. That’s what is unique about our approach. We don’t look at it so much as big data, because we’re looking for things that add value by linking the data sets together. For us, it’s more about ‘rich data’," explains Professor Clive Sabel, Aarhus University, who is in charge of the new centre.

From small acorns...
The concept of 'exposome’ encompasses the total exposures of an individual over a lifetime, and it is a vital element in understanding the relationship between the environment and health - i.e. what conditions in our immediate surroundings lead to disease on the one hand, and quality of life on the other.

On the basis of the rich data, BERTHA will address one of the major challenges in modern biomedicine: To gather together, couple and analyse large volumes of very different types of data that can influence health in order to investigate patterns in space and time for social and environmental exposures, and their correlation with a given disease or with the quality of life.

This requires new technological approaches such as new types of sensors and methodological innovation as well as entirely new understandings about exposure and behaviour. BERTHA will improve the description of the environmental impact on an individual by including temporal and activity patterns as well as personal measurements.

Is it possible to quantify the exposome? Will it mean a huge increase in value in relation to understanding the diseases that usually develop later in life? We understand parts of the diseases’ development, but not nearly enough to create the big picture.

"By following people through the many day-to-day movements in their lives, we can find more accurate explanations for what causes the diseases on the one hand, and quality of life on the other. This will make it possible to see whether a disease is the result of single incidents of high-risk exposure or of slow accumulation over an individual's life. Now that we can, don’t we owe it to ourselves and our descendants to look at the data more closely and try and prevent development of this type of disease?" asks Clive Sabel.

BERTHA will open officially on 10 December with a ceremony at the Department of Environmental Science in Roskilde. Read more about the event and registration, via this link.

Facts:
The Big Data Centre for Environment and Health is being coordinated by Professor Clive Sabel from the Department of Environmental Science at Aarhus University. Professor Sabel is an environmental geographer specialising in analysis of spatial data at individual level. The management team at the centre also includes Professor Torben Sigsgaard from the Department of Public Health at Aarhus University, an environmental and occupational physician specialising in the health effects of environmental impacts, Professor Carsten Bøcker Pedersen from the Department of Economics and Business Economics, a statistician specialising in register-based research, and finally Professor Ole Hertel from the Department of Environmental Science, an environmental scientist specialising in population exposure to air pollution.

Contact:
Professor Clive Sabel
Department of Environmental Science
Tel.: +45 93508633 
Email: cs@envs.au.dk 

Professor Christian Erikstrup,
Department of Clinical Medicine
Email: erikstrup@clin.au.dk

Dean Niels Christian Nielsen
Science & Technology
Aarhus University
Email: dean.scitech@au.dk 
Tel.: +45 28992541

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